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Parkwood Middle math teacher uses Kenan Fellow experiences to connect students to real-world STEM lessons

Pam Johnson Four months ago, Parkwood Middle teacher Pam Johnson could barely contain her excitement when she was selected as a Kenan Fellow. As a third-year math teacher, she knew the prestigious fellowship played a critical role in helping educators connect students to real-world STEM experiences.

And as a lifelong learner, she was ready to participate in the 80 hours of professional development sessions with educators from across the state.

Now --after a whirlwind summer that included a 120-hour internship, training sessions and more – Johnson is back in her classroom with her mind full of ideas to incorporate those experiences into her curriculum for the 2019-20 school year. 

“This experience has really pushed me beyond my comfort zone, and I’ve met other teachers who were as passionate and dedicated as I think I am,” Johnson said. “The Kenan Fellowship has been pretty spectacular, and if I can take what I’ve learned, incorporate it into my classroom and help another teacher, then that’s what I want to do.”

The Kenan Fellows Program for Teacher Leadership addresses the critical need for high-quality professional development for educators, and is the largest STEM-focused teacher leadership program in North Carolina. Johnson was one of only 27 educators across the state to be selected for the program.

As part of the fellowship, Johnson interned at Union Power during the summer. Over the course of one month, Johnson soaked in every experience she could – from individual meetings with company leaders to shadowing employees in the field.

“I really did everything. I was driving a forklift, I was in the bucket trap, I dug holes in the ground with a backpedal, I went into a customer’s home to help with an energy audit to see why their bills were so high and I even went to the Catawba River Station and stood beside a nuclear reactor,” she said. “I thought I’d be in the office most of the time, but being in the field ended up being a lot of fun.”

On the surface, Union Power seems like an odd internship choice for a math educator, and one that would be better suited for a science teacher.

But when Johnson shows the description of a project-based learning math lesson that she has since created for her students, drawing from her experiences this summer, it’s easy to see how it all falls into place.

Pam Johnson The lesson, which is called Who Turned the Lights On, requires students to spend several weeks working in groups to propose the implementation of service to a new grocery stores in their area. Students will also be required to logically support or advocate against the development of a specific store chain based on its location, cost, environmental impacts, and economic impacts on the community.

It’s not just a math project – it also incorporates science, language arts and social studies. That, Johnson said, is reflective of what the students can expect in their future careers.

“I want to show them how mathematical thinking overlaps with other subjects. If I can teach a student to think critically, logically and sequentially – that is math,” she said. “Math is not just numbers, math is the ability to think and we use that across all subject areas. We have calculators to calculate for us, we need critical thinkers to problem solve.”

Johnson said by the end of the project, which she will make available to all educators via the Kenan Fellow website, she hopes to not only bring these STEM concepts into her classroom but also connect students to future STEM careers.

“I don’t want to know how fast you can do your times tables. I want to see how you can creatively solve a problem,” she said. “The Union Power lineman in the field are some of the most brilliant people and are phenomenally educated in math and science – I want our students to see the career options that are out there in the trades industry. I just want them to try something different and not see math arbitrarily but see how it can be applied in real life in real careers.”

Want to learn more about Johnson’s experience as a Kenan Fellow? Check out her blog posts at kenanfellows.org/2020-pjohnson/ and follow UCPS on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates throughout the school year.

Posted: Aug. 28, 2019